Google Gives Feds 1,500 Private Phone Locations in ‘Geofencing’ Request

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Google has reportedly handed over 1,500 private phone locations to the federal government as part of a “geofencing” request tied to a criminal arson investigation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The revelation comes as Silicon Valley tech giants are coming under increased fire over user privacy violations. The non-profit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said in a recently published study that tech giants including Google and Facebook secretly share the data they collect on users with third parties, including government bodies.

Forbes reported that officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) demanded Google supply records of user devices in the locations at the times the arsons took place from 2018 to 2019.

Google tracks physical phone locations and stores the information in a massive database called Sensorvault. Users can avoid being tracked if they turn off the “location history” feature in their Google accounts.

Forbes said that Google found 1,494 device identifiers in Sensorvault and sent them to the ATF as part of the investigation. It remains unclear if Google handed over any information that could identify users, according to the report.

“Geofencing” refers to the use of wireless technology to define a geographic boundary. The term has become increasingly associated with law enforcement and digital privacy — specifically, whether or not tech firms have the right to share a user’s mobile location with law enforcement officials.

A recent New York Times investigation found that Google can still gain access to the information on Apple devices, including the iPhone, and hand it over to law enforcement, despite Apple’s claims to high standards of privacy.

The information collected by Google is initially anonymous when given to the police, according to the Times. But once law enforcement has selected the devices believed to be linked to the crime, Google hands over the names of the users.

Forbes reported that the ATF wouldn’t comment on ongoing investigations.

“To ensure the safety of our special agents and other law enforcement partners with whom we work, ATF does not release information regarding certain law enforcement techniques to the public,” a spokesperson told the publication.

Forbes said it obtained another search warrant showing Google is trying to fight back against overly broad government requests.

Federal officers reportedly demanded information on devices in the vicinity of a bank robbery in Allenton, Wisconsin, in April.

Google responded that the area the government wanted it to search too wide, and as a result, investigators narrowed the search area from a 400-meter radius, to 50 meters, according to the report.

Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, told Forbes that the company has processes to look through government requests and ensure customer privacy was protected. “

“We only produce information that identifies specific users when we are legally required to do so,” said Salgado.

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